Center for Dissemination & Implementation Global Health Center

Center collaborator: “Connections ensure trust and sustainability”

If you hear a presentation by Professor of Medicine, Juliet Iwelunmor, PhD, from the Division of Infectious Disease at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, you immediately sense that she is passionate, well spoken, driven and committed to work that drives impact. Since joining the Department of Medicine in September 2023, Iwelunmor—or “Dr. Juliet” as colleagues call her—is making her mark on population health by working to sustain evidence-based health interventions among young people in resource-limited settings. In service of Public Health at WashU, Iwelunmor has jumped in with both hands as a collaborator at the Global Health Center and the Center for Dissemination and Implementation. She is also “committed to diversifying research excellence among researchers and community organizations” through her grants as stories program. This approach to grant writing inspires people to create health solutions that address community needs worldwide, while being open to failure as evidenced in what she calls “a failure resume” that she often shares. Success for her equates to about 30% (which means much of her work is unknown) however, unsuccessful work (or failure) can be just as inspiring as successful grant-funded work.  

Q: What project are you most excited about right now?

It’s so hard to decide as I am excited about all of them. Perhaps the question might be “What moves me these days about the work I get to do?” and my answer is “creativity”. I was recently in Nigeria in an Omniverse meeting supported by William Powderly, MD, (the Larry J. Shapiro Director of the Institute for Public Health) and WashU Vice Provost, Mary McKay, PhD. The meeting was full of people interested in the intersection of music and the arts, as well as technology and health. It’s not often that you find health researchers interacting with musicians, so I spoke from the heart about how I see that all creativity is local. All healing should be local too. The audience agreed and I find myself repeating this to everyone I meet. There are local ways of engaging with those you call your community; local ways to engage in music and arts, for example. I think health should follow the same ethos, ensuring that all healing is local. Maybe that’s why I look forward to an upcoming “mega-designathon” we’re hosting; a one of a kind, multi-disease-based campaign that asks all Nigerians to help co-create interventions – whether for high blood pressure and stroke, vaccine preventable cancers, or HIV prevention among young people – as local, creative and sustainable. Ownership of these interventions can only begin when we co-create them, with all voices and experiences fully represented. What I get to call “work” today really excites me!

Q: How will you engage with the Global Health Center and the Center for Dissemination and Implementation?

We have already established meeting schedules with key communities of interest, focused on accelerating what global health means for WashU and its Here and Next strategic plan. We have aligned interests at heart with the work we do and my role is to listen and help elevate WashU to become that focal driver of what it means to engage all communities both here at WashU and globally, so that reciprocal learning can occur.

What are unique considerations when studying implementation in global health?

With any global health work, I think it’s always important to begin where you are. For example, when I travel, I am always quick to contrast global health work with work ongoing in the U.S. Global health isn’t one sided. It’s for all. It’s important to study the context in which you find yourself. As things often don’t go as planned, you must be willing to adapt and be open to the assets available to you where you are. If all you see are deficits, you may become part of the problem. That’s why it’s important to find the positive things that can be amplified. Because rampant health misinformation is common these days, I believe it is up to us all to connect in ways that ensure trust and sustainability. For example, if I’m speaking on air at a radio station, I speak about my work in ways that I hope will connect with everyone. Of course, it is important to connect with fellow researchers or policymakers and many of us do that so well; but what about everyday people and those far removed from our conferences and publications? I am inspired by the “global” in global health, the “public” in public health and I hope many more people will keep that in mind as they amplify their work in the field. It’s perhaps why dissemination is key and I look forward to spreading these messages more in my work at WashU.

How do you integrate health equity with implementation science?

For me, in any community, health equity means moving away from deficits and focusing on the assets that matter. We should ensure that we are partners, not just leaders in our implementation work. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the book, Health Beyond the Western Paradigm, written by my mentor, Dr. Collins Airhihenbuwa. It is “how to” literature on health equity and decolonizing research and global health work. I look forward to leaning on lessons I learned from the book to truly move implementation science as a field, beyond the Western paradigm, so that it’s inclusive and welcoming to everyone. The majority of the work we do tends to focus on hurdles, barriers and challenges. Rather than working from a deficit mindset, what if we focused on the assets, adaptations and authenticity that communities bring to healing? All help close the gap between research and practice. What if we conduct this work so that it lasts? I am passionate about helping programs last within implementation science, and I do so not only focusing on challenges as difficult hurdles, but also from a place of assets asking, “What fits the contexts I find myself in and why?”

Where do you see implementation science going in the next 10 years? What about advancements in global health?

I definitely see more growth, more recognition on the importance of creativity—even in implementation science. When it comes to implementation science or global health, I am also interested in capacity support, and not merely in building it. I mean, inspiring co-learning among people—who are often not at the academic or clinical table—but who can contribute to their own health. I often say I write my grants with no interventions in mind, and that is true. We begin from a place where we do not have all the answers but are willing to listen to and learn directly from people as we go. Failure is always an option and an opportunity to learn so, I look to the field to normalize this. For every single grant success that people hear about from me, there are also many failures. That’s why I encourage having a “failure resume” or “failure portfolio”. My failures have truly shaped my work in implementation science and global health and I hope to advance this more for the field. I call it PLAN: how people learn, adapt, and nurture core values of their interventions or programs so that aspects of them can continue. This is at the heart of what I do: The simple act of planning will foster sustainability. Finally, like many undergrads, I didn’t know what a career in global health would look like (e.g., there are no clear pathways). Now, I look forward to inspiring the next generation of learning—not just undergrads—but also middle school and high school students, so that the field of implementation science becomes accessible to them early on.